Monday, October 09, 2006


Try this brainteaser. A black man, dressed completely in black is sitting at a bar in an English country pub. He is drinking one whisky after another. After three hours the black man in black leaves the pub and stumbles drunkenly down a narrow, winding country lane. There are no streetlights and there is no moon. A car without headlights approaches at speed. Despite this, the car driver notices the black man and is able to brake in time to avoid an accident. How could the driver see the black man? Think about this before checking the answer at the of this article.

The reason we can get stuck with this (and other problems in life) is that we make assumptions. If we assume that the man in black is out for an evening drink, then the problem is a hard one to figure out.

The dictionary defines an assumption as something we "take for granted" or "suppose to be true". Assumptions are essential to logical thinking and decision making, but woe betide us if they are false.

In the 1980s, WHO (The World Health Organisation) launched an expensive public health campaign in Pakistan. The objective was to educate mothers to feed milk to their newborn babies. Because of numerous regional languages, WHO adopted a visual approach depicting the main message in a 3-part cartoon format. The first picture on the left-hand side showed a sick and crying baby. The second, middle picture showed the baby drinking milk. And the third and right-hand picture a healthy and happy baby. The problem was that in Pakistan, people read from right to left! The poster was effectively saying "Take a healthy baby, give it milk, make it sick."

The designers at WHO had made the fatal assumption that Pakistanis read from left to right, as we do in the West.

The more costly, the more significant the event, the more important it is to check basic assumptions. This is one way that external consultants such as McKinsey and BCG add value to client projects. An outside-in view allows different perspectives and the chance to question basic assumptions. For this reason also, new employees in an organisation have a few precious weeks at the beginning of their tenure - to see things with fresh eyes before becoming indoctrinated with the values and assumptions of their colleagues.

Sometimes false assumptions can result in amusing consequences. One of our partners had an assignment to coach the minister of employment of a major European country. Arriving at the ministry on a Saturday morning, he was greeted by a young lady dressed in jeans and pullover. She led him to a conference room, made him coffee and started to make small talk. Being pressed for time, our partner politely asked "When will the minister arrive?" Her answer was "I am the minister!" This was an interesting mistake, especially as the coaching was meant to involve communication and gender issues. Fortunately for our partner, the young minister had a sense of humour, and his faux pas turned into a nice ice-breaker.

Before you go, there is a very nice way to remember the importance of assumption checking. Look closely at the letters in the word "ASSUME" and note that taking things for granted can make an ASS of U and ME.

Paul Smith

ANSWER: The incident happened during the afternoon, in broad daylight.

(This article appears in the December 2006 issue of Spotlight Magazine)

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Hi Paul,

great to see you now have a blog to go with the OWAD service we so enjoy. Looking forward to reading your comments and opinions!